[JURIST] US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales [official profile; JURIST news archive] sent a letter [PDF text] to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday in response to a request that Gonzales clarify testimony [transcript] provided last week. Gonzales maintained that his testimony was truthful and that apparent contradictions stemmed from confusing language used to distinguish between undisclosed NSA intelligence programs and the domestic surveillance program [JURIST news archive] called the "terrorist surveillance program." In his letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and top committee Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), Gonzales wrote:
First, shortly after 9/11, the President authorized the NSA to undertake a number of highly classified intelligence activities. Second, although the legal bases for these activities varied, all of them were authorized in one presidential order, which was reauthorized approximately every 45 days. Third, before December 2005, the term "Terrorist Surveillance Program" was not used to refer to these activities, collectively or otherwise. It was only in early 2006, as part of the public debate that followed the unauthorized disclosure and the President's acknowledgment of one aspect of the NSA activities, that the term Terrorist Surveillance Program was first used.
At my July 24th public hearing, the Judiciary Committee asked questions about sensitive intelligence matters. In my public testimony, including on July 24th, I have tried to provide frank answers without disclosing classified information. I was discussing only that particular aspect of the NSA activities that the President has publicly acknowledged, and that we have called the Terrorist Surveillance Program, as defined in the DNI's letter. I recognize that the use of the term "Terrorist Surveillance Program" and my shorthand reference to the "program" publicly "described by the President" may have created confusion, particularly for those who are knowledgeable about the NSA activities authorized in the presidential order described by the DNI, and who may be accustomed to thinking of them or referring to them together as a single NSA "program."
In March 2004, when the presidential order was set to expire, the Department of Justice, under Acting Attorney General James Comey, refused to give its approval to reauthorization of the order because of concerns about the legal basis of certain of these NSA activities. As I testified, however, I recall that there was not a serious disagreement between Department and the White House in March 2004 and whether there was a legal basis for the particular activity later called the Terrorist Surveillance Program. That is not to say that the legal issues raised by the Terrorist Surveillance Program were insubstantial; it was an extraordinary activity that presented novel and difficult issues and was, as I understand, the subject of intense deliberations within the Department. In the spring of 2004, after a thorough reexamination of all these activities, Mr. Comey and the Office of Legal Counsel ultimately agreed that the President could direct the NSA to intercept international communications without a court order where the interceptions were targeted at al Qaeda or its affiliates. Other aspects of the NSA activities referenced in the DNI's letter did precipitate very serious disagreement. The nature of these disagreements has been the subject of oversight by the Intelligence Committees, including a closed hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence at which I recently testified.
Leahy called the explanation "legalistic" [press release] and "not what one should expect from the top law enforcement officer of the United States," and reiterated that Gonzales has until the end of this week to correct and supplement his testimony [JURIST report].
On Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell defended Gonzales against accusations of lying to Congress [JURIST report], saying that the name "terrorist surveillance program" was not used until early 2006. FBI Director Robert Mueller last week contradicted testimony [JURIST report] given by Gonzales concerning the 2004 discussion of intelligence activities. Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee [hearing materials] last Thursday that there was dissent within the administration concerning the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program, but Gonzales said that then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey did not express concerns about recertifying the program. AP has more.